Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Heaven, children, prayer and the Christian life

In Leonard Bernstein's Mass the following lyrics by Stephen Schwarz are sung at the beginning and have always had a profound effect on me:

Sing God a simple song: Lauda laude;
Make it up as you go along: Lauda laude.
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things.
For God is the simplest of all.

Those words have resonated in me throughout my Christian walk and pop up every now and again at odd times. First as a snatched melody that somehow gurgles up from the depths of my soul to be whistled out in the shower or as I shave. Then as the words join the melody I find, more often than not, that they bring tears to my eyes as if they belong to some half-forgotten memory of childhood when life was less complex and violent and more innocent and straightforward. And as I find myself reflecting on the words several things come to mind:

First, I think heaven is like that. There is a reason, I believe, that Jesus told us that unless we become like little children we will not enter the kingdom of heaven (Mark10). And that reason is that it will be populated by those who have, through grace and prayer, become childlike once again. In other words it will be full of wonder, worship, play and innocence. All the best that childhood brought us - discovery, new experiences and tastes and smells, adventure and an appreciation of everything as if we are seeing them/it for the first time -these, I believe, will be the features of a heaven (or renewed earth) full of child-like people. We will spend eternity - which won't feel like eternity, because time is only something we become aware of when something is boring or tedious - in the presence of the One who says he will "make all things new" (Revelation 21:5). And so heaven will be full of "oohs" and "ahhs" as we come across seach new discovery, each new aspect of God - Father, Son of Holy Spirit.

Second, I think it gives us an insight into prayer. We human beings are very good at making everything complicated and 'involved' and what's worse we seem to take great pride in doing so as if it impresses anyone. This goes for prayer as much as anything else and I think that the more complicated prayer becomes, the less it is prayer and the more it becomes a means of trying to woo God or persuade Him how serious we are or how He should help us. We - I - need to get back to first principles and see prayer as a conversation with God who is our heavenly Father. Looking, for example, at Matthew 6: 5-15 what impresses me is not so much what Jesus says as what he leaves out! No mention here of what to pray except the Lord's Prayer (verse 9-13) which is so simple and yet so all encompassing and in such stark contrast to the "babbling" of the pagans. No mention of length of prayer-time - how long we should pray; or time - when to pray. No mention of prayer lists or whether you should sit, stand or kneel.

In other words Jesus is not limiting prayer in any way but liberating it, and us, to pray whenever we like and in whatever way we choose whenever there is something to say to God, who as our Father, is always there and ready to speak with us. Of course this can be read to mean that we can pray as little as possible and not feel guilty about it - and of course feeling guilty is one sure fire way of undermining or negating prayer - but if we think like that then God is not really our Father but someone we try and get away from speaking to too much because it is meaningless or He is an ogre and not our Father.

But here again we make things too complex when Jesus is trying to make it simple.

First he simplifies it by freeing it from the restraints of time and wrong motives. Don't pray long meaningless prayers like the hypocrites in order to impress people or God. The 'reward' - surely an ironic word here - is to get what you want and feel important or impressive. But at what cost - boredom and superficiality and a loss of peace or Presence. The Jesus Prayer is one I especially like because it is brief and simple and to the point. Prayed meaningfully it is awesome in it's transparency and power.

Second, he simplifies it by tying prayer into a relationship with a Father who is interested and concerned about us and wants to have a relationship with us that is real and fulfilling. We go to a quiet place to converse with him and receive the reward of knowing that we have done something worthwhile and helpful. WHat is greater and better and more wonderful than engaging with the One who created us out of love?

Third, he simplifies it by showing us that few words, with meaning, are better than many words which strive to give meaning but which too soon run out of steam and quickly become meaningless and frustrating. I don't know about you but I get sick of hearing myself floundering round for the 'right' words to say or the 'right way' to express myself. Jesus rescues us from this by giving us something disarmingly simple and straightforward to say which are right and sufficient.

So keep prayer simple. When you think of someone or something to pray for pray for it/them when you think of it/them. Don't save it up till later. Like food it's always best fresh. Go into your prayer 'room' - a quiet and private place which can be in your head (closing the door (verse 6) can be a metaphor for closing your eyes and "your room" (verse 6) can be a metaphor for your head/mind - and talk to Father.

Third, I think of the Christian life and the need to live it simply in all sorts of ways. Simple living without too many 'things' has a beneficial effect on the planet and the lives of others as well as our own soul. Simple speaking - let your 'yes' be yes etc (Matthew 5:37) - avoids the complexity of lies and what they can lead to.“When words are many, sin is not absent,but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Proverbs 10:19)  "One thing is needful" Jesus told Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) and "Simplicity of life is to will one things" wrote Kierkegaard the philosopher.

"Sing God a simple song - for God is the simplest of all".

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